One argument made for Brexit is that we no longer have the power to make our own laws, and the EU is unaccountable and undemocratic.
- In reality the policy and law making processes of the European Union are more democratic than those in the UK.
- The political balance of the European Parliament matches the views of the British electorate more closely than does the UK parliament.
- Claims that the UK usually loses in European decision making are made by people on the political right, who generally lose because they do not represent the political views of either the UK or the European electorate.
How “democratic” is the UK?
This is sometimes described as an issue of “British sovereignty”. However, constitutionally, we are citizens of Europe, but in the UK we are only subjects of the Queen. This may seem a trivial point, but the Royal Prerogative gives authority to the Government which goes well beyond the authority of any institution of Europe.
Is European law-making democratic?
There are three parties to the creation of any EU laws or regulation. They are proposed by the Commission, appointed by the national Governments, but they only become law if they are approved both by the European Parliament, elected by all the citizens of the EU, and by the Council of elected heads of government. The Commission is also informed by online public consultations on particular issues.
The European Commission
The Commission is a team of Commissioners, one appointed by the elected government of each Member State. Past UK Commissioners have been former Ministers (Leon Brittain, Peter Mandelson, Roy Jenkins). The current UK Commissioner is Lord Hill, who came from a background in Public Relations to head the No 10 Policy Unit in John Major’s Government, and then became Leader of the House of Lords. Each Commissioner oversees one aspect of the EU’s work. Lord Hill’s brief is for financial affairs, which matters greatly to the UK, given the global role of the City of London.
Which Parliament is most “democratic”?
There is a strong case that the European Parliament is more democratic, and has more layers of accountability, and reflects the views of the electorate better than the UK one.
In the European Parliament there are 751 MEPs (only 100 more than Westminster). Each country has a number of seats corresponding to their population. As the third equal largest States, the UK and Italy both have 73 MEPs, behind France with 74, and Germany with 96.
Just as UK MPs are expected to represent their constituents, and act in the national interest, so MEPs are expected to act in the interests of their constituents and of Europe as a whole: they are not there to defend a national interest.
The European Parliament is elected by proportional representation, which means that every vote counts, and the result reflects the balance of opinion across Europe more accurately than the UK’s.
By contrast, although every UK elector has one vote, our “first past the post” system means that the number of Parliamentary seats are not proportionally distributed. There are four kinds of bias:
- Large numbers concentrated in an area can be disproportionately influential (as in both Conservative and Labour results). This gives voters in a small number of marginal seats a disproportionate influence
- small numbers strategically placed (as in Scotland), can get more seats;
- large numbers evenly spread get fewer seats (UKIP, Liberal, Green).
- Low turnout means that MPs and the government can easily be elected without the explicit consent of a majority of their electorate (we have a majority Government based on the votes of 24 of the electorate)
The table below shows how these biases affect the membership of the current House of Commons:
|Party||Share of electorate %||Share of vote in 2015
|Share of seats
|Over representation in Parliament|
How does the European Parliament work?
Most MEPs are members of political Groups, who generally work and vote together, though MEPs are not whipped:
The largest Group is the centre right European People’s Party (EPP), with 215 members. The UK is the only country with no members in this Group. The UK Conservatives were members until David Cameron took them out in 2009 to form a breakaway right wing group with a number of Czech MEPS.
The 20 Labour MEPs belong to the second largest Group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), with 190 MEPs, including MEPs from all Member States.
The 21 Conservatives are members of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) with 76 MEPs, half from the UK (Conservative) and Poland.
The 22 UKIP Members are in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD) which has 45 MEPs. Almost all are from UK (UKIP) or Italy.
The three Greens, two SNP, and one Plaid Cymru Members are in the Group of the Greens which has 50 MEPs.
The single Liberal Democrat MEP is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) which has 70 MEPs
One UK MEP is in the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) which has 38 MEPs. Half are from the French Front Nationale.
The one Sinn Fein MEP is a member of the Confederal Group of the United Left, which has 52 MEPs.
One UK MEP (from the Democratic Unionists) is non-aligned. There are 15 non-aligned members who are not members of any group
Is “the UK” always overruled in Europe?
Brexit supporters claim that “the UK” loses disproportionately in Parliamentary votes.
Because the European Parliament is more consensual than confrontational, agreement is generally quite high (unlike the British Parliament). Overall most countries are on the winning side in votes on 85% of occasions. The figure was over 80% for the UK until 2009. When the Coalition Government came to power, the “UK success rate” fell to 70%, the lowest of any country.
Researchers at the London School of Economics have analysed all Parliamentary votes since 2004. The table below shows that, since 2004 Members from three groups have been consistently on the winning side of votes in more than 80% of cases. These are the two largest Groups, the centre right EPP and the centre left S&D and the smaller Liberal Alliance. By contrast, the small ECR Group, where the UK Conservatives sit, has been on the winning side in less than 60 of votes, and since 2014, the EFDD have only been on the winning side in 30 of votes since 2009 when the Coalition Government came to power in the UK.
|Party||MEPs||UK Members||Percent of MEPs||Percent of UK MEPs||Winning votes 2004 – 2009||Winning votes 2009 – 2015|
The UK’s “problem” lies in its electoral system
People in the UK vote in broadly the same way as the rest of Europe. In 2015, almost half of all UK voters (48.5%) chose parties which are allied to the left in European terms (Labour, Liberal, SNP, Green, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Sinn Fein). In the European Parliament the groups representing those parties hold almost exactly this proportion of seats (48%).
However, because of first past the post, the UK Parliament gives near absolute control of Government to the other half (the 50.5% who voted for parties on the right (almost entirely Conservative and UKIP).
The claim that the UK is regularly outvoted in the European Parliament is not true. It is the Conservative and UKIP members who are regularly outvoted, because they do not represent a clear majority, in either the UK or Europe, and they have chosen to ally themselves with group to the right of the broad right group where their former colleagues sit.
The European Parliament has greater democratic legitimacy than the UK one, because it is more likely to reflect the opinions of the majority of the people of both Europe and the UK.
European legislation is subject to more democratic control than is the UK, because European legislation requires the consent of three bodies: one directly elected on a proportional basis, and two indirectly elected. By contrast, in the UK, most legislation can be forced through by the governing party without broad public consent.
The political consensus in the EU is significantly to the left of the British Conservative Party and UKIP. For those on the left, membership of the EU provides protection against a political process in the UK which is unfairly biased to the right.